A peek into the workings in the nation’s capital

Late last year, when Newfoundland and Labrador premier Danny Williams announced his resignation, it was front-page news across the country and one of the most talked-about events of the year. A few months earlier, when British Columbia premier Gordon Campbell resigned, Canadians asked, “Who’s Gordon Campbell again?”

Campbell ran a much larger, wealthier, and more populous province, but he didn’t make anything close to the impact Williams did on the national scene.  William’s ferocious battles with the Paul Martin and Stephen Harper governments over equalization and offshore oil revenues got everybody talking about him and his often-overlooked province.

Some Canadians loved him for standing up for his relatively poor but fiercely proud province, and trying to hold Ottawa to its promises; others were turned off by his combative style, and dismissed his fight as yet another scheme to squeeze more money from the federal government. But everybody had an opinion about him.

Another Newfoundland icon, Bill Rowe, held a courtside seat for Williams’ fight with then-prime minister Martin in 2004 and 2005. Rowe has done it all — he was a Rhodes Scholar and lawyer, published several novels, served as a cabinet minister under Joey Smallwood, and led the Liberal Party of Newfoundland and Labrador — but he’s probably best known for his long-running call-in show, Open Line, on VOCM radio in St. John’s.

Rowe was perfectly happy hosting Open Line, and had no plans to return to politics when the newly elected Williams asked him to serve as a provincial representative in Ottawa — basically, Newfoundland and Labrador’ s ambassador to Canada. Rowe wasn’t sure he wanted the new job, but anyone slightly familiar with Williams will know the man is nothing if not persistent. Rowe finally relented and went to Ottawa just in time for the equalization fight to heat up.

Long the poor cousin of Confederation, Newfoundland and Labrador received equalization payments from the federal government for decades, but by 2004, the provincial economy was finally booming because of offshore oil development. Unfortunately, even as the province earned millions from oil, its equalization monies were reduced accordingly, leaving the province without sufficient funds to pay down its massive debt.

On the campaign trail, Martin had promised to let Newfoundland and Labrador (and Nova Scotia, whose premier John Hamm served as “good cop” with Williams) keep all of its offshore revenues, without the monies being clawed back. After winning a minority government in 2004, however, he tried to backtrack.

The fight was on, and Team Martin had no idea who they were up against. By the time Williams removed the Canadian flag from provincial buildings in protest, the federal government probably realized it couldn’t win, and a face-saving deal was reached in early 2005.

Rowe’s account of this tumultuous period works best as an eye-opening, often hilariously funny, account of life among Ottawa power brokers and civil servants. Reading Danny Williams: The War With Ottawa, you’d have to wonder why anyone would subject themselves to living in the nation’ s capital, where the people are surly, the bureaucrats and store clerks serve you when they feel like it, and on any given day you’ll be stuck in traffic as the president of Mexico gets a police escort through town.

At least Rowe had many fellow Newfoundlanders to work with in this foreign territory — in the prime minister’s office, in the media, in government. When Rowe was invited to a reception at the British High Commission, it turned out the English receptionist who called him was married to a Newfoundlander. (Oh, yeah, this very column is being written by a Newfoundlander, in case you couldn’t tell.)

If The War With Ottawa is accurate, Martin never stood a chance against Williams. The premier, a self-made millionaire and successful lawyer before entering politics, pounced on the equalization issue like a rabid dog; Martin, a great finance minister who never quite got the hang of being prime minister, was distracted and let down by semi-competent advisers and cabinet ministers who seemed to have no idea who was responsible for what.

Rowe’s book would probably have benefited from some editing; it seems like he wants to describe every conversation he ever had with anyone he ever met in Ottawa. Instead, Rowe could have spent more time establishing why Newfoundland and Labrador was justified in seeking changes to the equalization formula. For a book about that very subject, surprisingly little space is used for making the province’s case.

Admittedly, equalization is a deadly dull and complicated subject. But Rowe appears to assume his province’s grievances are self-evidently justified. I’m not sure the issue is so black and white — as a proud Newfoundlander, I certainly want to see my native province grow and prosper, and as a Canadian I’d like to see our prime ministers held to their promises. However, I can also understand how other Canadians would question why Newfoundland and Labrador should receive equalization payments and rake in millions from offshore oil.

Rowe argues his province is handicapped by the highest per-capita debt in Canada, which grew so large primarily because of injustices like the notorious Churchill Falls agreement, by which Quebec earns billions from hydroelectric power generated in Labrador. Maybe so, but the fiscal surplus with which Newfoundland and Labrador entered Confederation had been squandered through ill-advised industrialization schemes long before the Churchill Falls deal was signed. (The less said about more recent boondoggles, like the infamous Sprung cucumber greenhouse, the better.) The 10th province has been smacked around quite a bit, but at least some of its wounds are self-inflicted.

The book also ends on a curious note, after a homesick Rowe has ended his term in Ottawa and returned to radio in St. John’s. Politics is second only to hockey as Newfoundlanders’ favourite sport, and Rowe allowed — some say encouraged — his talk-show callers to vent their frustrations about their premier. Williams, who parted with Rowe on very good terms, would have little else to do with him.

For all of merits, Williams is not known for taking criticism well, and that would be a great subject for a book. The silent treatment didn’t change Rowe’s opinion of the former premier, however. He concludes that Williams may go down as Newfoundland and Labrador’s greatest premier. If you weren’t already a fan of Williams, this book may not change your mind. If you want to know how things actually get done in the nation’s capital, however, it’s a worthy read.

Damian J. Penny, a native of Mt. Pearl, N.L., is a family law practitioner with Bedford Law in Bedford, N.S. His blog can be found at damianpenny.com and his Twitter feed at www.twitter.com/damianpenny. He can be reached at [email protected].

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